Jackson Culpepper grew up in south Georgia and now lives in east Tennessee with his wife, Margaret, two dogs, and two horses. He recently got the Death card in a tarot reading about his writing, but it’s about rebirth more than flat-out ceasing to be, so that will be interesting. His Web site is jacksonculpepper.wordpress.com.
It is said that we become the monsters we fight; then what great beast did General Sherman see that so transmogrified him?
—Anonymous historian, drunk
Our Boy, halfway through another day full of nothing, took another drink, swore, and lit a bottle rocket from where he sat, watching it arc over the yard and land sputtering in the lake. He did this because he was still a boy and should have been a young man by now but instead still had those two words of boyhood in his mind and in his blood: fuck it. This product of his environment cranked his father’s white golf cart, taking the rockets and the beer, loading everything into the wire caddy and took to the road—Our Boy was angry because anger was under everything around him: anger in the steel of the railroad tracks that divided the town, anger in the eyes of the stone Confederate of the square who awaited the next war from the north, anger in the bones of the buried malcontented dead and of the slaves below them and of the Muskogee down below everybody and if there was a devil below them, he didn’t have to do much.
But it’s beer and fireworks! OB and his folks lived in one of the newer houses in the Valhalla subdivision, where everyone pronounced the name with the first two A’s drawled out to all hell. Some of the houses were huge bungalows while others were brick, just like the rich ones in town; the owners hadn’t made the creative jump to lake-rich, they just saw the first thing they came to and called it “rich” and stuck with that. OB hates them, but for a good reason: he’s never felt at home there.
He crossed the empty highway to one of the dirt roads lined with viney heaviness. OB reached back and lit bottle rockets, first the wire basket which sent them off like chaff from a fighter jet and then, one foot on the wheel, OB aimed with one hand and lit with the other and found out he was pretty good at that missilery (perhaps because his people were good, and knew it, at all missilery). Few more yards and he let a cow have it broadsides, boom! Pop! against its steak parts and it ran crooning, like a retard he thought, it sounded just like a retard. OB aimed and shot, aimed and shot—one rocket hit a mule, but the damn stupid thing didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. OB took this as an accusation of impotence.
(Of the words above this is the most important: Our, capitalized. Because all is one, maybe, or because ole Faulkner said the past isn’t even gone and plenty of bullets have proved him right, and ole Heschel said some are guilty but all are responsible. And is an Our Boy made of words any different, in our hearts, from one of flesh?)
OB pulled into his friend Wade’s drive and shot a bottle rocket at his front door. Boom! Pop!
—The fuck, Wade said. He came out in cut-off khakis (same as OB) and a striped shirt washed too many times (OB left shirtless). It goes without saying they’re both wearing destroyed ball caps, Wade’s for the Braves and OB’s for the Dawgs, sic ‘em, roo roo roo roo. You knocked a divot in the door, you asshole.
—You can’t tell from the street.
—Like hell you can’t. You got beer?
—Get in, we got to find Joe.
—He’s at baseball camp.
—How about Josh?
—Probably home. Hey, give me one of those beers.
OB lit a rocket at him and Wade hit the floor and it buzzed off and smacked into one of the neighbor’s palmettos where it popped, blowing dried leaves through the air and the stick part stuck, hanging out of the bush like a tiny erection. The visual was lost, for once, on the boys.
Wade got in and drank, OB pulled out of the drive and drank, and they cruised the Scenic Route (actual name of the road) and drank.
While the big green self-consciousness monster (it looks like a Muppet with double-sided razor blades for its teeth) chewed on OB’s legs, Wade developed a conversation about the video games he rented from the store in town, like he always did (that is, the kid always rented video games in town. He’s played all sixty-three titles they have for the PlayStation, from the good sneaking, fighting and role-playing ones on down to the shitfests: the generic tankers and ones where you run hacking through levels that each look exactly the same. In fact, he’s the reason you can never check out the good games, because odds are Wade Taylor got there before you and he’s in with the dudes that work there and gets those suckers before they even get reshelved. He’s going to wind up rich enough to live in the part of Albany, Georgia, where you enjoy living in Albany, Georgia. And since Wade plays a ton of these games, and since they’re about the most interesting things that happen to Wade during the summer, it’s all he talks about). Too bad for OB, he realized back at Mortal Kombat on Sega that he failed at all such things and gave up.
So the two protagonists (heroes) rolled down the back roads, those mythical, beautiful, ageless back roads that country singers turn into something beautiful but these kids—nah, just look at it: there was a once-white golf cart careening space shuttle launch and from this golf cart came booze belches, spare cans, a steady lecture on the boss fight with Psycho Mantis and how it frustrated the hell out of everybody who played it, except for OB, who as he knows is = (everybody -1). If you’re literal here, also imagine a big green Muppet being dragged along, dust collecting in its felt, as it gnaws OB’s leg. And, never far from the story, the boom! Pop! of stray rockets that OB was lighting up like a three-pack-a-day man lights up cigarettes—which is, not even meaning to. Fences and farms swirled by on either side, not that Wade and OB paid any attention whatsoever.
Josh’s house, framed by tall pines, recalls the White House if all you think about is columns and big. Three stories of open front, Scarlet-waiting-for-Rhett columned porchery, a balcony on each of the upper levels. Two young magnolias flank the alabaster driveway, which weaves its pleasing parabola around a pine straw mound of ferns, bougainvillea, and carefully pruned crepe myrtles. The rest of the arc is immaculate lawn—the lines across it in perfect parallel symmetry. So OB doughnutted the dusty bandwagon right onto the grass.
—Jesus man, first my door then—
Blasts from the horn, weemp weemp and one boom! Pop! that whistled into the balcony like it was thinking of buying the place before exploding into the seat of a painted UGA rocker. Josh came out wearing a goddamn cowboy hat. Not a Stetson but one of those crushed straw gas-station things and it was all you could do not to picture a rebel flag somewhere close by. Wade and OB instantly made fun of him.
—Tex, the fuck?
—It’s cool man, I wore it to the party last night and Katie danced with me (Thus: Josh = teenage boy + money + jackass cowboy hat. Further, Josh + Katie = success. Therefore, teenage boy + money + jackass cowboy hat + Katie = success. OB is trying to figure this stuff out.)
—Where are we going? John Wayne asked.
OB, finding no reasonable response, knocked a rocket over Josh’s head close enough to singe the loose straw bits sticking off the top. Josh climbed in.
(THE PAST: The first known Georgia hillbilly party to occur, at least with European men mostly from English penal colonies, happened some time in the Jacksonian era and, though a fledgling effort, had enough rum and homebrew floating around that the boys figured out, sure enough, that it was funny to load powder and wadding and shoot your ramrod out of your rifle. On about the third occasion of this, just as Jeroboam Lincoln [he changed his name in ‘65] was figuring out how to then make the ramrod explode once it was out, a tribe of justifiably pissed-off Muskogee [You would be pissed too. Imagine having these guys for neighbors who were jackasses to begin with, plus their daddies kicked your daddies off land you’d lived on since Buzzard raised the mountains, and the jackassery hadn’t let up since. The tribe was patient for a long, long time but in the end they faced the damned-if-you-do choice: get pushed by the interlopers to the ends of the earth, or get up and kill the bastards.] came across the river quietly enough to sneak past the guards better than Solid Snake could’ve, and started sniping arrows into some motherfuckers. The Georgia boys, they grabbed up their rifles but the things were only loaded with ramrods, plus Riley’s who thought it would be funny to load his wife’s nicest pair of drawers into it and see if they took shape when they came out. So boom boom boom, and three-foot ramrods flew past the Muskogee, who as a body turned toward the missiles as they wobbled by, and in one voice, in Muskogee, said,
Which gave just enough time for Riley to save the day by launching Mrs. Riley’s drawers. They inflated and floated like the ghost of his wife’s ass. Besides making the Muskogee think this was some serious Crow medicine, they couldn’t see so large was the garment, and that gave the Georgia boys enough time to grab up pistols where they had them stashed and, as we know from brutal history, touchdown, sic ‘em, roo roo roo roo.
The tradition, thus established, slugged its drunken way through teary renditions of “Lorena,” didn’t work so well against Sherman. They lost. Who knows the full sum of what they lost, or its quality? It’s not a question for pity but for reckoning. And anyway here’s the thing: the Georgia boys, they’re sore losers. Like a dog that, once kicked, snarls on all. Like screaming Watson in front of the capitol.
Five generations later, Our Boys of the same stock forged ahead.)
Josh climbed onto the back of the golf cart, which was a bad decision since if the driving didn’t kill him the rockets might. He held on with one hand on the back bumper and the other on his hat (very important because hat = girls). OB, for his part, was trying desperately to knock that stupid hat away with a rocket without appearing to. He swerved, throttled, braked, but each time he looked back there it was, spray-painted straw, brand new and beat up as hell. So he veered down an embankment.
The tires of the golf cart left the earth and hung in zero-gravity for 2.67 seconds. During this time, Josh floated up off the back bumper, his hat floated off his head, Wade gripped the roof for dear life, and OB cracked his next beer and shot three of his biggest rockets to clear the path. Shuffle and re-shuffle, they landed with one kid across the neck rest, another half out the windshield (or where it would be) and OB holding on like a sailor to the mizzenmast.
Skidding to a halt, they groaned, moved, checked if this was heaven or hell, and the smoke cleared. Before them was a wide yard, bungalow (the actual, small kind,) and an enclosed dock. They ran.
—First one gets it, called Wade.
—Wait up, said Josh, just before OB kicked his leg out from under him (sporting or mean? They went running to the dock, flung open the door and there, shining, beautiful, three Yamaha waverunners rested in canvas moorings, two doubles and a four-man hoss. The boys, under OB’s eye, transferred the beer, rockets, hat. Most of the booty they loaded onto the big boy, that aquatic Percheron, plus just enough on the little ones to get by.
So they saddled up, manned the winches, lowered into the arena and coughed the beasts to life. Blue gas fumes barked out of the nostrils, the water churned as they leaped to a lope out of the slough and into the Lake proper.
What freedom! Cause even falling off the damned things you couldn’t get hurt, it was only ker-splash and swim back to it (they can swim, right?). So first thing, Josh and Wade started jousting on them, flying at sixty over the smoothest water they could find, rocket-lances skidding up the fiberglass snouts and exploding, boom! Pop!, behind them. OB ordered a raid. In close formation, under the old Georgia flag (the old one still with the stars and bars), they approached one: Pontoon boat, containing: Mom, Pop, Sister age 16, her boyfriend Andy on the cell phone screaming to be heard on the water, little Billy and Bobby tubing on a red-white-and-blue wedge-shaped thing behind. Their speed: 15 MPH. Their cargo: Coca-Cola, Zero bars, the .38 Pop kept under the seat.
Flight of the Valkyries. OB, point, fired the first volley overhead. Wade and Josh flanked opposite. Circling like Mongols outside the range of Pop’s .38 (now out and firing, with his curses, and his wife pulling in Billy and Bobby as from a burning house) the boys rode in one at a time, high speed, launching all the rockets they could in a number of seconds, then back out of range, and the next boy went, and so forth. Of course OB was the best at this. His runs launched a dozen or more decent rockets at the family boat, denting the hull. Josh could only manage two or three, his hat flapping on its chin-strap. Wade, not to be outdone, figured a way to launch a whole pack of the tiny 24/$1 ones like hornets, bedeviling Pop’s careful aim with his last two bullets and poor Sis couldn’t hear Andy at all.
Pop called, by way of failing authority, Is there no respect left?
OB and Co. answered, truthfully, No sir.
—Then answer, at least, why this violence and rage?
—Because why not, sir?
—That is insufficient.
OB rode close, trimming the bow high, his pale body taut, the confidence of mad youth flashing in his eyes. Perhaps, sir, because each generation must destroy the last, OB said. Perhaps because your generation surrendered to that marching army of boxes now lining the highway which strangled to death our lovely brick downtown, which may actually have been real. Surrendered all that which was real for comfort and large televisions and those damned big houses. Surrendered rebellion itself because instead of the sword and gun you chose the assassin’s knife of decency. OB said, Because, sir, this land burns.
Josh and Wade laughed with barbarian glee at the cratered, burning, listing craft. Pop its lone, blackened defender. The boys war-whooped as the wreck bubbled into the water, Pop saluting to Taps.
They sped across the lake, OB in lead with the other two cutting his wake. Other jet skis came along and left with missiles hurling through their rooster tails or our heroes gave chase, threatening to ride them down; old men in fishing boats received the empties from the C.S.S. OB; all the skiers, kneeboarders, wakeboarders, slalomers, and tubers got their ski ropes cut; until—until...
(NOW: We will peer into OB’s brain, which, lacking a fully developed frontal lobe due to his age, claws at itself to make some sense of what he’s doing. He knows it’s in some way for a capitol-S South, but also for Georgia, and for this land he knows and, if he’ll admit it, loves, and for his friends but in large part for himself. For his anger, perhaps, out of some irrational vengeance—but there needs to be more to it, he thinks, and runs raw the gears of his mind making himself signify something.
What is left of the South for OB to raise again? We won’t delude ourselves that white supremacy, while not articulated, doesn’t hang like a fascist banner at the back of his thoughts—and yet the song in his head has been Pastor Troy’s very own “Ain’t No Mo Play in GA,” not to mention those thoughts expressed in “O Father” which OB has spent whole evenings contemplating over cigarettes pilfered from his father. OB copied in his notebook for further consideration these lines—
No way to win cause we are in for the ride of our lives
I was writing this shit I had to wipe my eyes
Cause this is chaos they after us we’ll never succeed
—because somehow in the contemplation of it this white kid in a five-thousand-square-foot house felt the same way. OB understood it to be true for himself on a level he couldn’t yet comprehend. But also he felt the first stirrings of compassion for someone else’s suffering he’d ever felt in his life. Every gun-blast of the Pastor’s ethos built to this in OB’s mind: weeping, desperation, loss of hope. Here lay the beating beaten heart of all the rage and bravado. And that defeat or its admission made OB yet more angry: angry about everything he understood Pastor Troy to be angry about. Angry too, on a deeper level, about his own complicity in that oppression. Angry at his helplessness, angry at his shame, and ashamed.
And so OB has carried in his heart that growing star of his shame. We could say it, that he’s a sore loser. The ancient wisdom says Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance; OB fundamentally cannot dance. Yet he lives in a country bristling with swords.)
The Independence Day barge was a moss-covered hunk of steel, lashed with cables to old hollow barrels, Styrofoam leaking in spores from underneath. Each year it tolled the bells of fire and ooh and aah to remind our nation that it was born shooting at people and survived the same way. Each year a dozen of the oldest game wardens towed it out. The pontoon always came to its spot and never needed an anchor, it was so conditioned. Then professional ooh-and-aah artists from Atlanta or Macon loaded it with cordite magnificence, ferrying more and more on until its flat deck floated only inches above the water. It was to this discovery, loaded and ready, that our boys (why not go ahead and make them family?) came.
OB hauled alongside and hopped from his mount to the deck. None of the fireworks looked like those he was used to: no bright colors, no pictures, just blackened tubes and wires. The only difference between any of them was their bore sizes. They were bolted to long sheets of plywood, one along each of the square pontoon’s sides and OB looked around him, judging range and yes—there, within the arc, were the new condos, the whitewashed neighborhood with its own logo, and the boat club where no few American flags flew and pistol shots filled the air. If the condos weren’t enough, new houseboats, some downright yachts, were moored along a steel pier outside a marina serving frozen drinks. There was endless loud Jimmy Buffet. The panoply was easily enough the symbol if not the substance of all OB believed he hated. For those less tangible objects of his rage, he decided, these would do as well.
While the other boys circled the platform keeping the wardens disturbed, OB lifted the eastern plywood battery. It was very heavy. With a heave he turned all those organ pipes to face exactly where he wanted them, aiming directly at the new neighborhood of condos. He lifted and turned the other panels toward houseboats, toward the manicured lawn of the park, toward the gathering horde of speedboats bearing fat men and wrinkled women, all the radios playing the same goddamned Jimmy Buffet. He turned each battery out, OB, and made each barrel a ray of his rage. In the setting sun of the birthday of the nation that birthed him, OB lit a last rocket, his biggest one, and cast it down like a thunderbolt.
With brilliant noise and light, pine siding was splintered; corrugated steel was bent and blackened; pleasure boats sank. Flames rose at every turn and crackled against the screams. OB was quite immolated. Josh’s hat floated on one of the waves that wasn’t burning. You are imagining this, but not enough: everything burned.
OB thus became the weakest god of them all in fiery ranting, pitiful to the last—but it did make a pretty bonfire on the waves: one hell of a party.